Sunday, March 08, 2009

P.S., I love EU: Rachman's startled valentine to the European Union

It's time for another Wolf Munch Rock Award - so named because the truth is often hard to digest.

It's also named for Financial Times columnists Martin Wolf, Wolfgang Munchau and Gideon Rachman, mainstays of that oasis of dispassionate analysis the FT Comment page. It goes to an observer of world news and trends whose writings exhibit deep (if understated) expertise, fact- and evidence-based exposition, wide-angle perspective on large-scale trends, and theses based more on observation and analysis than ideology.

This week's award goes to Gideon Rachman, for a column that exemplifies those virtues, garnished with Rachman's own signature understatement, irony, self-deprecation and contrarianism -- in this case directed against himself. A backhanded tribute to the European Union, the column is also a blackflipped mea culpa: I was wrong because I was right:
I am ready to retire as a eurosceptic. The European Union is in trouble. But rather than smirking – which would be the normal reaction of a sceptic – I am alarmed.
The premise is simple enough. European political union is a pipe dream, and a dangerous one. European economic union, on the other hand, "is the best example we have of international governance," a pillar of stability and prosperity. If protectionist pressures unravel the benefits of the common market, the results could be catastrophic.

What's so very interesting, though, is Rachman's personal journey from loving to hate the EU for its political pretensions to learning to love its now-endangered economic accomplishments. Even more interesting, it's the very weaknesses entailed by incomplete political union than now endanger economic cooperation. Rachman despised the pretensions, recognized the weaknesses and now trembles for the Rube Goldberg contraption that fostered European prosperity and freedom in spite of it all:
In January 2001, I arrived in Brussels with several firm and unfavourable convictions about the EU. I believed that most ordinary Europeans felt far more loyalty to their nation than to Europe. I thought that steadily enlarging the powers of Brussels was undemocratic and dangerous. I reckoned that in a crisis, nationalist instincts would come to the fore. I suspected that the EU’s new currency – the euro – was liable to run into trouble. And I believed that the Brussels-based elite was a “new class” that had confused its own interests with those of the continent of Europe.

Eight years on, I look back at these old prejudices – and smile at my foresight. The past few years have provided a graphic demonstration of the feeble popular support for the European project....The strain of the economic crisis is indeed opening up divisions within the Union. An emergency EU summit was called this weekend to combat protectionism. Several of the new EU members from central Europe are facing banking and financial crises – and the older members have refused to bail them out....

Arguably, all my darkest suspicions about the European project are about to be vindicated. So it is an odd time to renounce euroscepticism.

But it is precisely the threat to the EU that has focused my mind. Plans for a political union in Europe were always crazy. But the four freedoms already established by the EU – free movement of goods, people, services and capital – are huge and tangible achievements. It would be terrible to see them rolled back.

Appreciation for those "huge and tangible achievements" under stress focuses the mind indeed:
If Europe starts rolling back the four freedoms, the implications will stretch well beyond economics. Protectionism and nationalism are close cousins. The principles of consultation, co-operation and open borders within the EU have helped to repress the old, nationalist demons.
Protectionism and nationalism are close cousins. Variations on that warning have been plentiful on the FT comment page. It's the overriding back-to-the-future fear haunting the current crisis. But this phrasing is particularly resonant -- filtered as it is through Rachman's longstanding respect for European nationalist resistance to EU political ambitions.

Rachman closes with a trope that captures the full irony of his turnaround:
Strangely enough, I now feel a certain protective warmth towards the embattled eurocrats in their Brussels skyscrapers. This would have been hard to imagine when I arrived in the city all those years ago. But it has finally happened. I love Big Brother.
"Big Brother," it seems, has turned out to be King Log rather than King Stork.

This column epitomizes what I value in the FT Comment page. FT columnists write "essays" in the original sense -- trials, thought experiments. Often, they visibly think their way through to a conclusion -- and it's not just an empty rhetorical exercise leading us to a false eureka. Rachman, Wolf, Stephens, Munchau et al often take readers through their own uncertainties, ambivalences, fears: they frame policymakers' dilemmas with sensitivity and an appreciation for hard choices. I'm not sure how a crew with such congruent sensibilities was assembled. But in this era of newspaper meltdown, I look at the page with the same anxious don't-know-what-you've-got-till-its-under-siege regard that Rachman casts on the EU.

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